Eat the Revolution
by Maria Reidelbach
Diversity—it’s a buzzword in these days of tightening immigration policies, national isolationism, debates over gender identity, and even over who is a patriotic American.
Diversity is a hot issue in agriculture, too. Despite the fact that a typical modern supermarket carries over 100 flavors of ice cream, dozens of types of potato chips and who-knows-how-many variations of soda, the basic ingredients comprising our diets have dwindled alarmingly. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, of over 30,000 edible plant species, three-quarters of the food eaten globally comes from just 12 plants, plus 5 animal species that are fed mostly those same plants. Now called the “global standard diet,” it has upended the biodiversity of the world’s ecosystems, from rainforests to our internal microbiomes. The processed foods we eat (just about everything in the center aisles of supermarkets) are made mainly from wheat, rice, corn, palm oil and soybeans that are magically engineered into seemingly different substances, made palatable with artificial flavors (now legally called “natural flavors”).
Why should we care? There are plenty of reasons. Our bodies are made to be fueled and kept healthy by a wide variety of nutrients found in a diversity of plants, animals and fungus. However, the world population is now becoming “stuffed and starved,” as the new book Bread Wine Chocolate by Simran Sethi explains. We overeat calorie-dense foods: starches, sugars, oils and meats, but we eat relatively few plant foods that are the great sources of essential micronutrients like antioxidants. Today 795 million people go hungry, 2 billion are overweight or obese, yet all suffer from “micronutrient malnutrition.”
Lack of plant diversity also threatens our food supply. Monocropping is a way to grow massive amounts of a single species, usually using lots of petrochemical-derived fertilizers and pesticides, but it’s a risky proposition. Plant varieties are very vulnerable to insects, diseases and changing climates and so a single virulent pest can wipe out an entire global crop. It’s happening now to the Cavendish banana, the only variety sold in nearly all American supermarkets. A single fungal disease will soon make it extinct and biologists are frantically trying to breed a resistant replacement.
Which brings us to the next reason—we need a rich diversity of seeds, each with their own unique genome, in order to breed new varieties of plants when the need or the desire arises. This is so important that the Global Crop Diversity Trust, headquartered in Bonn, Germany, keeps a Global Seed Vault, a “Noah’s Ark” for seeds, since many old strains are disappearing.
Last but definitely not least, eating the same-old same-old is just plain boring. Case in point: tomatoes. Sure, we could eat those round, red supermarket tomatoes which were bred for their ability to ripen on cue, produce durable thick skin that survives thousands of miles of bruising transport, and stays “fresh” for weeks. But there’s not a lot of flavor there; there’s minimal tender juiciness. Compare that to the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, which offers 194 varieties of tomatoes. There is a rainbow of hues, including black, white, bright purple, striped and “tie-dyed.” Some will grow better in warmer climes, some better here, some are sweet, and some are tart. There are tomatoes the size of marbles and tomatoes as big as a baby’s head. There are hollow tomatoes to stuff, fleshy tomatoes to cook, tomatoes to grow in containers, and tomatoes that climb. Each type has its own unique nutrient and flavor profile. Doesn’t it make you hungry and excited just thinking about it?
Here’s where we can all do our delicious part to support agro-diversity—in our own gardens and at farmers markets. Once again, if we follow our sensual desires, they lead not only to sheer delight, they support our health and the well-being of community and global ecosystems. By both growing and buying unusual vegetables, fruit, herbs, grains and more, we are helping to support seed diversity.
Learning about varieties of food plants is a fascinating, juicy way to explore both biology and world history. I love knowing that watermelon was bred by ancient tribes in the Kalahari Desert of Africa as a way to purify, store and transport water. And that okra is a close relative of showy hibiscus. The names are tantalizing clues: the seed for Mother Mary’s Pie Melon was preserved by W.R. Lorence, whose Minnesota granny grew them. In fact, the seeds for many unusual plants were saved by home gardeners who passed them down through the generations; these are the true heirloom plants.
So: all is not lost. In the nooks and crannies of progressive agriculture we are enjoying a growing renaissance of agro-diversity in seeds. Seed catalogs bulge with offerings, but not all companies are the same. The vast majority of seed sold today comes from just a few giant corporations, led by Monsanto-Bayer’s Seminis Vegetable Seeds. If you want to avoid big ag, look for independent companies that subscribe to the Safe Seed Pledge, a program led by the nonprofit Council for Responsible Genetics, which advocates for education and public debate about the social, ethical and environmental implications of genetic technologies.
We are fortunate to have the nationally recognized Hudson Valley Seed Company right in our neighborhood. This is a great place to get seed that you know will grow well here. Ken Greene and Doug Muller, the couple who founded the company (formerly known as the Seed Library), are fans of old-time seed package art and continue the tradition today by inviting artists to design gorgeous “art packs” for a wide variety of seeds. The seeds, many of which are grown at their Accord, New York farm, are available at local nurseries, farm stands, and online.
The Hudson Valley Seed Company is sponsoring another artist’s project this month, one that includes public participation. Sergey Jivelin, a Hudson Valley fine art jeweler and conceptual artist, has conceived Furrow, an artwork made of seed. Some seeds, in order to germinate quickly or successfully, need to have their thick skin nicked so that water can easily penetrate. Using special micro-etching equipment Sergey will adorn seed brought by visitors with tiny unique images that pierce the skin. The gallery will be equipped with germination stations and time lapse cameras. Each seed artwork will then be planted either in the gallery or in home gardens, becoming transformed as it grows into the plant it was destined to be. Sergey will be in residence at the CHRCH Project Space, 167 Cottekill Road, Cottekill, New York, every Saturday and Sunday in March from 11am to 4pm. Please bring seed to join the fun.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY.
Photo Yardavore17-3-1, caption: Etched seed by Sergey Jivelin.